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Simon: The subtle cruelty of grief

I took a trip to Wisconsin last week for a very important milestone. My father turned 80 years old.

To honor his 80th year, my sisters took him on a road trip. They went to Mount Rushmore and the Badlands, they passed through Minnesota and South Dakota and into Wyoming, stopping everywhere from a rodeo to the Spam Museum. Social media posts with the hashtag #eightyisgreaty peppered their feeds.

But my father’s milestone birthday was missing someone.

I talk about my mother a lot in these columns. As I write this, it is exactly six months since she passed. She died in her sleep on Feb. 26 at her home in Wisconsin. My sister called me at 7:30 a.m. to let me know. She was ill, I knew it was going to be sooner than later, but I thought I had just a little more time. It had been a month since I had seen her last, in the hospital up in Madison for pneumonia and a kidney infection.

After she passed, a friend told me, “the world feels permanently off-kilter without our parents in it.” It was the most accurate thing anyone has ever said to me.

Grief is cruel. It’s quiet. It sneaks in and stabs you in the heart when you are least expecting it. The grocery store suddenly makes you cry. Flashes of landscape as you drive to work are suddenly reminders of your childhood. A TV show, a song, the perfume of someone who passes you on the sidewalk, all can produce the grieving reflex. It’s out of your control and it’s so devious that you simply don’t recognize it until it seizes your whole body. You wait it out. You cry. You move on to something else.

No matter how many people I talk to about this loss, people who have also suffered it, none of us know exactly how to communicate it. I can’t explain to my husband what it feels like. I can barely explain it to myself.

I suffer with something that I have dubbed “grief guilt.” It’s the guilt I feel that I am so heartbroken over the loss of my mother when she lived a long and full life. My mother passed after more than five decades of marriage. She was 76, which I don’t consider very old, but certainly not an uncommon age to die. She had five healthy children and 17 grandchildren, and she got to see 10 of those grandchildren grow into adulthood.

So, I find myself feeling guilty for my grief. She didn’t die young or tragically. She didn’t have her life unfairly cut short. My mother’s death, frankly, is the death we all want. She passed away safe and warm in her bed, her husband of 56 years by her side, a long life behind her.

I know that those who have lost someone under tragic circumstances would not hold it against me, this grief that invades my daily activities. She was my mother. Of course, I am heartbroken. But I still feel guilty.

Then I feel better. Then I laugh. Then I work. Then I remember. Then I cry. Then I feel guilty. The cycle continues.

Lately, I find myself almost desperate to remember the year 1987, the year my mother was the age I am now. Do sunsets look the same? Did she sing in the car as loudly as I do? Do my children see me like I saw her?

My mother was robbed of her own father. She was only 26 years old, and he only 57 when he died of colon cancer. She talked about him all the time, and I always noticed, but I never understood. Now, I get it. For 50 years, she missed him. Every day was a little emptier without him. Like my friend told me, the world was permanently off-kilter.

I have no idea if there is an afterlife. But I would like to think that my mother is still around somewhere, reunited with her own father, willing to wait for the rest of us, imploring me not to have any more grief guilt. I think she’d be proud of me, of all of us. I wish I had asked her just a few more questions, though. I wish I knew that last visit was the end.

My mother left me with 45 years of memories. She left me with her sense of humor. She left me with her white hair. She left me as her spitting image. I see her every time I look in the mirror.

I wonder if the world will ever spin right again.

• Marney Simon is the editor of the Morris Herald-News. She can be reached at

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